Close this window to return to BookThink
A Princely Sum: Part I
What the deuce, one might ask is the decrepit object we see, pictured below, looking like some mummified relic retrieved from Tut's mausoleum? This object - like some chunk of dark debris cast up on a shoreline by the waves, its salt-soaked hide baked and cured by the sun, its innards invaded by sand fleas? Can it be a book? Haw. It can. Indeed it is. Yes a precious book ... cherished, even. But valuable? You be the judge.
It was many years ago, long before many of you youngsters were even born. Antediluvian times ... harrumph ... they were not so antediluvian to us then ... they were times of bookish adventures and hopeful investment. September it was when I and a colleague were out booking.
I remember it well. William Deckle was a colleague, and friend, although our friendship might have looked quite adversarial to any casual observer. We frequently went out booking together across the land, foraging, as it were, through the nooks and crannies of the landscape for goodies. Our tastes were so different we were rarely in competition. An unkind person would have said it was because our purses were so different. Harrumph.
Our temperaments were different. I am - I do not hide it - others insist on it - I am a curmudgeon, a crusty generalist, a populist, if you will, when it comes to books and paper. Willie was an ... haw! How shall I say it without seeming to denigrate the memory of a close friend? Willie was an elitist. Yes Elite ... not in any font-ish sort of way, and he only rarely put on a snob's nose in company, but Willie was obsessed with what he called The Best. To his very inner depths Deckle was a Royalist - at least when it came to books.
No tawdry paperbacks for Willie. No cheap sensationalist dime novels. No superstitious almanacs. No moldy old journals. Willie's nose was attuned to the smell of leather, the glint of gold, the patina of vellum. He could not resist a book cradled in velvet, set on display like some sort of silent siren. The covers of a beautifully bound book were Willie's Symplegades, and once he had touched the binding or stuck his nose into such an enticing book - to smell the leather, to stroke the snowy white pages, to feel the impress of the type - the book's siren song would cloud all reason and its covers slam shut on his purse like Scylla and Charybdis ... a more willing victim there never was. If a bookshop smelled like a tannery, then Willie Deckle would spend hours therein and his purse would be appreciably lighter upon exiting.
As I said, it was September - balmy, breezy fall weather perfect for booking; so the two of us set out in Willie's 1905 Rambler. Willie was proud of the car's automatic ignition and loved the fact that the throttle was connected to the steering wheel. He was often heard to say, if a Rambler was good enough for President Teddy Roosevelt it was good enough for William Deckle. Haw. This is all well and fine for those who care about such things. Even I can admit it was a fine vehicle.
We drove into a town .... some small, tony commercial village in the Hudson valley with a variety of shops on the main street. Immediately Willie spotted the sign indicating an antiquarian book shop, housed in an elegant, Federalist style building.
"There you go, Booknoodle, what did I say? A fine establishment! Sable and Savory only sell the finest books. Oh, this is going to be so much fun! Why just a couple of months ago I received their catalog. I must have spent over $2,000 dollars just from that one mailing." He rubbed his hands together in eager anticipation. I swear - William Deckle is the only person outside a drama that I ever saw doing that.
"Harrumph. Please, spare me the details," said I, heading off what could entail a lengthy description of every bit of minutia concerning the books purchased.
"Why, you're just jealous, old boy!"
At that moment I espied a shop down a ways on the opposite side of the street. That building needed a coat of paint. The windows were grimy and one could not see within. This shop had a sign worn with age - faded letters swinging from a rusted iron frame. I could make out the words: Shovel and Pile Anteeks & Junke.
"Look here, Deckle, I'm going down to that junk shop to poke around."
"What on earth do you think you will find there? Why they can't even spell. What ignorance to put up such a sign. I can't think why the town allows a building to remain in such seedy condition. Why do you insist on poking around in these grimy places? You always come out covered with dust. And I shan't have you soiling the covers of my automobile seats. Come along to Sable and Savory with me. That's where the real treasures are.
"Blast your seat covers. I intend to have a look around. You go to Sable and Savory and I'll go to Shovel and Pile. I just feel there's something to be found. We'll meet back here."
"Ha! All that you'll find are rags and a bone, flyspecks and mouse droppings!"
"You always say that and I always prove you mistaken."
"Nonsense. I seek and find the real books. You always come up with these objects that are mistaken for books, Booknoodle. Ha, ha, ha."
But I was already striding away. Blast! The man could be so irritating. Shovel and Pile was just what I expected (and hoped for) - piles and heaps of merchandise in all conditions. Objects came here to complete their transition back into their elemental parts. Anything and everything. Yes, my sort of establishment.
Peering into the dark interior, I could just make out a wall of shelves upon which were a large, jumbled assortment of books. There was no sign of a proprietor. A cat lay sleeping on top a huge old steamer trunk. Of course I had to tickle its ears. The shop was silent, but for the loud purring of the cat.
To make my way to the shelves with the books required a bit of contortionistic agility on my part. What passed for aisles were narrow and mined with objects scattered on the floor. They wound between shelves that loomed like mountains - threatening landslides at the slightest disturbance - a veritable jungle of disparate objects. I imagine the town's entire history might be squirreled away in these cast-off articles.
Finally, with only a modicum of difficulty I found myself standing before the books. Behind me loomed a tottery concoction of shelves piled and stuffed with things that seemed likely to topple over on me. It was not possible to back up so as to see the lower shelves of books. To see those required further contortions on my part. One practically had to stand on one's head to read the titles. And it was dark. A single small light bulb hung above, covered with dust - it hardly gave enough light to see. The light that came came through the windows was but a timid affair.
Of course it was a motley, ragged lot. Worn, dusty, frayed, age-darkened ... stained, to say nothing of the mouse nibbles and flyspecks. The books were a mess. Flies buzzed about, as if to be in competition with the cat's purring. Leaning over to read a title I bumped against a coat rack upon which hung an assortment of garments - an old raccoon coat loudly proclaimed its presence with a cloud of dust ... something thumped to the floor.
"Harrumph. Deckle was right," muttered I, sneezing loudly. "Whatever am I doing?"
Then I saw what had thumped to the floor. The dust it had dislodged in a puff was now settling and I could see that it was a book. A leather book. But it's condition! Lying there on the floor it looked like something a dog might have dragged in as a prize.
I picked it up and blew off the dust. Then wiped the covers on the raccoon coat. The book was so worn that there was no leather left around its edges. The corners had been eroded to a smooth roundness. The spine had been amateurishly, but solidly resewn onto the boards. The leather was covered with scratches and awl holes where someone had once attempted to reinforce a corner. Its shape was amorphous. One could not really call it book-shaped any more. The leather was shiny, the way old harnesses become after years of use. Indeed the book had an aspect of the saddlery about it.
The pages were brown with age and use - worn down - worn down, I was to find by centuries of use. Inside the book was marked by an old damp stain, the tide line of which traveled through the entire volume. What had I stumbled upon? Why it was an old herbal! A Culpeper, in fact. There were no end-papers; the book started right in with the Preface (The PREFACE To All Students in Physick, Chirurgery and Chimistry). Written in ink in a very old hand were discernible marginal notes.
After the Preface was a brief biography of Culpeper and several poems of dubious talent, with Culpeper as their subject. Then came the Title. It read, and I give it in its fullness: CULPEPER'S SCHOOL OF PHYSICK, OR, THE ENGLISH APOTHECARY A Treatise of the Transcendent Sufficiency of our English HERBS, as they may be rightly used in Medicine. BEING a brief and exact Account of the chiefest Concernments of the whole HERBARY ART; as also of the Excellency of our English Home Physick. By NICHOLAS CULPEPER, Gent. Student in Physick and Astrology. London, Printed in the year MDCXCVI.
1696! "Ha!" exclaimed I, "There's your find. Let Deckle crow all he may, but here is a gem, no matter its condition."
I looked around. Still no sign of a shop keeper. Retracing my path back through the store, I neared the sleeping cat. I heard the sound of a chair creaking. Behind the huge steamer trunk upon which the cat blissfully lay was a desk, and at the desk sat the shop owner. An old man, dressed in a dusty cardigan and equally dusty brown trousers - seamed face squinting out through old-fashioned spectacles, the old man spoke in a voice that was as soft as the cat's purring was loud.
"Find something of interest?"
"Interest depends on the individual," said I. "How much are your books?"
"Price depends on the book, y'see."
"Well, I picked this book up from the floor, and had to dust it off. It is in terrible condition. But I find I still have some interest in it."
"Let me see. Oh, that there's an old one, that is. Yep. That's a valuable book. Valuable. Look at it. Covered in leather. And it's got that old time spelling in it. All those funny looking letters. Yep, it's old. Covered in leather."
"So are shoes," replied I, sagging a bit.
"Yes, but this is book leather. I can't just let this here go for the same price as the general mill of books."
"Well, how much do you need to charge?" I asked
"Wellll ... see, I charges 25 cents a book unless it's rare or if you buys a lot, which case I gives a discount. But look here, you're only buying this one book. Only one. And it's old. And it's leather. I have to charge you two dollars. Can't charge less. Nope. After all leather is leather."
"Harrumph. So it is," said I, handing over two bills. "No need to wrap it, I'll carry it just as it is."
"Wasn't offering to," said the proprietor, pocketing the bills.
Back at the Rambler I found Willie had not yet emerged from Sable and Savory. The deuce if I was going to go in there to cajole him out. Leaving a note on the car, I went over to a restaurant with my prize and determined on a nice hot drink. I perused my Culpeper whilst sipping what turned out to be quite passable coffee.
Eventually Deckle sauntered in, looking very smug and pleased with himself. In his arms was cradled a package, neatly wrapped in creamy paper and encircled by a neatly tied string. He placed the package deliberately on the table, before taking a seat opposite me and beaming at me with a Roosevelt grin.
I said nothing. No need to provoke what would be a tedious shelf-by-shelf account of his browsing and a page-by-page description of what I knew was in the package.
"Well?" he asked.
"Well what?" replied I.
"Aren't you going to ask?"
"Ask what? About the weather? The route home?" retorted I, baiting Willie.
"I say, Booknoodle, why must you be so damned difficult! You know perfectly well what the question is."
"I see no question at all. There is no doubt. Where there is no doubt there is no question. I see you have purchased something. Indeed it is a book. Imagine hhat. And it cost you a pretty penny, no doubt! And ... you cannot wait to brag about it to me."
"That's a bit unfair." Willie posed a pout.
"Brag away," said I.
"Oh, well, if you insist!" my friend said, his demeanor brightening instantly. And he proceeded to delineate in loving detail the discovery and purchase ... discovery, my eye! Harrumph ... the blasted book was probably sitting regally in full sight with a spotlight on it.
"This has to be the most beautiful book I have ever purchased," exclaimed Deckle. Haw. Every new book purchase is the most beautiful - the most wonderful book he has ever bought.
"I have found a 1574 Libellus de dentibus by Bartolomo Eustachi. It is bound in the most sumptuous red morocco leather. The gold tooling is simply exquisite!"
"Harrumph. Would have been nicer in a contemporary plain vellum," said I dryly.
"But Noodle, old chap, this is a marvelous find! It is beautiful. I had to pay ..."
"Stop! I don't care what you paid." In fact I did, but I was not going to give Deckle such immediate satisfaction of thinking I gave a hoot how much he had squandered. Now I can admit to being impressed, but at that moment I was determined to make Deckle work hard for the praise he wanted.
"So ... you spent a little money on A Little Treatise on Dentistry. Do you have enough left to purchase petrol for the ride home?" Deckle sighed ... impatiently ... I noticed with some satisfaction.
"I didn't spend a little bit of money, I spent a great deal!" he exclaimed. I spent $5,000. After all it is one of the first books on dentistry ever printed.
Inwardly I blanched. $5,000 dollars was indeed an impressive sum.
"Harrumph. John D. Rockefeller spends that much every morning before he gets out of bed," I said.
"You're just jealous."
"I am not. I managed to find something myself in that shop you so hastily dismissed as being nothing but a collection of flyspeck. I found a medical book also."
"Well what?" I enjoyed playing this game with Deckle. He was such an easy score.
"That's it?" he said incredulously as he spotted the book lying next to my coffee cup. "That's it? Good gracious, Booknoodle, what did you do - browse the dust bin? That is certainly the most unsightly book I have ever laid eyes on. Surely you picked it out of some dog's mouth!"
"Harrumph. I would never take a bone from a dog's mouth," I replied indignantly. "Sneer all you want, but this is a very important title."
"In that execrable condition, it must be the only copy in existence to warrant any value at all."
"I'll have you know I paid dearly for this book."
"Surely you are mad. The junk store owner should have paid you for removing it from his premises.
"I paid the princely sum of $2.00."
"Now you are making fun of me," cried Willie.
"Confound it, I paid two dollars - two whole, hard-earned dollars. That is the cost of two good lunches!
"But ... but - to pay anything at all for such a thing ..."
"It is what is inside that counts," said I. "Would you kick and sneer at your dog just because he had gotten old and scruffy? I tell you, I shall get more pleasure out of this tattered, worn-out book, in one evening than you will out of that rare volume in a life time. Why you can't even read Latin. "
"Well, what is it then, that could be worth such a princely sum?" asked Deckle.
"It's a Culpeper."
"Culpeper! Why they are as common - as common - as common as peppers on a pepper plant! I don't see that was worth culling at all. Ha, ha!" Deckle always laughed at his own jokes and puns.
"Yes. A Culpeper, from 1696, and I shall share some of the inner wisdom of this Culpeper with you on the drive home. I will read its entrails and predict you will understand its fascination."
"Since I am to do the driving, I shall then helplessly be your captive audience. I say, that coffee smells good."
To be continued ...
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC